Finding the Black and White Truth on Tomlinson Hill

If your car radio is usually tuned to NPR, you may have already heard from journalist and author Chris Tomlinson--his recent appearance on Fresh Air with Terry Gross likely caused a driveway moment or two. Tomlinson will be discussing and signing his new book, Tomlinson Hill, at Brazos Bookstore on Wednesday, July 30, and he says that sharing the story of his own Texas family's slaveholding roots is an exercise in personal and historical honesty.

"Almost every day I read or hear a Texan bragging about being a fourth or fifth-generation Texan, but I don't hear them talk about what that means," said Tomlinson, who recently joined the staff of the Houston Chronicle. "If you can trace your family history back that far, you are going to have a family history much like mine. I get angry when I hear people talk about being a fifth-generation Texan, but they don't want to talk about slavery or Jim Crow; they want to choose the history they talk about, and when they do that, they deny African Americans their history and their experience, and that's problematic."

To research such a difficult and intensely personal topic, Tomlinson put his skills as a journalist to good use. "I put on investigative reporter hat on, and tried to detach myself from the story. Whether leads were good or bad, I took that path to tell the story," said Tomlinson, who went into the project with eyes wide open. "Clearly, I knew this was not going to be a "good" story--we're talking about slavery, Jim Crow, and organized oppression." Drawing on his years of experience reporting on international conflicts (Rwanda, for example) helped Tomlinson make sense of what he found when researching his own family's racial history. "The complications there informed me in terms of how complicated it must have been for my family, so there was a good exchange of being able to understand that these were really battles over power and privilege."

However, tapping into the emotional aspect of the story would be something that Tomlinson could not ignore. "It wasn't until I sat down and started to pull it all together and began writing that I began to feel the emotional power of being so intimately connected to this story. At that point I realized that I needed to be involved, and that it was my story. My feelings and perspectives needed to be in it, and that's why I call this book a personal history rather than a history book, or reportage. It's a strange mix of history and memoir," explained Tomlinson. Crafting 200 interviews into a historical narrative, Tomlinson began to outline the story of his family--or, more accurately, of two families; his own, and "the black Tomlinsons" who trace their name back to the white slave owners that gave it to them.

How did "the black Tomlinsons" react when a white Tomlinson came knocking, and asking to tell their story? Initially, with mistrust, according to Chris. "I had to prove to them that I was going to make an honest accounting. Part of that was digging up facts about their ancestors that they didn't know, and sharing them, and earning their trust. It wasn't easy. It required me to be as brutally honest as I am in the book," Chris recounted. "I felt an obligation to tell both families' stories equally--black and white--and report on the dead and the living equally as well."

While tracing the family name through the black descendants of slaves who worked the Tomlinson Hill plantation that his great-great grandfather owned, Chris found a famous name among them--retired NFL running back LaDanian Tomlinson. "LaDanian was the last black Tomlinson I spoke to--it took time to build trust. He knows as well as I do that people who write family histories generally want to talk about how great their ancestors were. The process of building that trust with the black Tomlinsons was one of the most emotional journeys. In many ways, I found them far more ready to forgive my ancestors than I was."

The exploration of race in Tomlinson Hill demonstrates the need to apply a critical eye to our collective history, and not give in to the temptation to relegate history to the distant past. "We talk about race every day, but we don't talk about the history of race," said Tomlinson. "People tend to think that slavery was a long time ago, but I interviewed a woman who knew her grandfather, who had been born a slave. LaDanian's father was a sharecropper picking cotton in the 1950s, and denied a proper education. It wasn't that long ago. The goal of my book, of telling the story of these two families in parallel, is to show how history reverberates in race relations today."

Pausing briefly, Tomlinson added, "Frankly, until the white community is ready to have an honest assessment of that history, we can't have true reconciliation."

Chris Tomlinson will present his book, Tomlinson Hill, at Brazos Bookstore on July 30 at 7 p.m.

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Christina Uticone